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Category Archives: Odds and Ends

Odds and Ends: Shaun the Sheep Movie / Straight Outta Compton

StraightOuttaSomewhere

Yesterday I took in a perversely designed double feature of Shaun the Sheep Movie and Straight Outta Compton — with the idea that juxtaposing a G-rated family-friendly animation and a “hard-R” gangsta-rap epic might illustrate something about the “duality of man” (as Full Metal Jacket‘s Private Joker would say) — and found myself thoroughly enjoying and appreciating both precisely because of this juxtaposition.

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Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton/Richard Starzak, UK, 2015) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 8.0

Produced by the venerable Aardman Animation Studios, Shaun the Sheep Movie might be devoid of the explicit social criticism and full-blown surrealism that makes ostensible “kids films” like Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Babe: Pig in the City such subversive delights but it’s nonetheless within hailing distance of those crazy masterworks in its delightful premise of a cute critter plunked down in an imposing urban setting (in this case the titular sheep must venture into the generic “Big City” to rescue his amnesiac farmer/owner). In case you weren’t aware, Shaun is completely free of spoken dialogue for the entirety of its 86-minute running time and thus harks back to the days of silent cinema in its use of pure visual humor and image-based storytelling; the way a group of live sheep camouflage themselves against a large bus-terminal poster advertising a trip to the country is but one example of the film’s many splendid sight gags. Whenever the human characters do speak, their voices sound like gibberish — not unlike the adult characters in a Peanuts cartoon — and the Chicago Reader‘s Ben Sachs has convincingly argued that the wordless filmmaking that results recalls the majesty of silent landmarks like Sunrise and The Crowd. I ultimately found the lack of reliance on dialogue/verbal humor incredibly refreshing and would rate Shaun the Sheep Movie a close second to Inside Out as animated/family film of the year.

Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, USA, 2015) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 8.5

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton is the best superhero-origin film of recent years (even better than X-Men: First Class, dude) in the way that it charts the rise of rap supergroup N.W.A. by first introducing each of its individual members and then pitting them against the music-industry supervillains (i.e., Jerry Heller and Suge Knight) who threaten to tear the team apart. The fact that Compton has already become a cultural phenomenon must be seen as a testament to how hungry general audiences are for an alternative to Hollywood’s lily-white summer programming. While the film is ultimately a triumph of directing over screenwriting (it is, as its critics have noted, worse off for soft-pedaling N.W.A.’s misogyny), there are still a million reasons to go see this on the big screen. Chief among them: it’s the first post-Ferguson film to acknowledge America’s police brutality and racism problems and — even though they may be couched within the framework of a musical biopic and period piece — their unflinching depiction still feels monumentally important for this reason. Plus, from a cinematic perspective, the whole thing is beautifully realized by F. Gary Gray (Friday) who, along with the great D.P. Matty Libatique, makes the Compton-milieu of the late 1980s and early 1990s come thrillingly alive. Most surprising of all though is how emotional it all feels, teetering at times on the verge of turning into a full-fledged male-weepie, but always remaining anchored by Jason Mitchell’s charismatic-but-naturalistic star turn as Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. One question lingers: after Love and Mercy and now this, has it become a rule that musical biopics must cast Paul Giamatti as a sleazy character in a bad hairpiece?

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Odds and Ends: Top Five and Cool Apocalypse

Top Five (Chris Rock, USA, 2014) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 8.0

Film Review Top Five

Though I’ve long admired his stand-up comedy, Top Five is the first film I’ve seen that was actually directed by Chris Rock (it’s his third feature). There are occasional tonal inconsistencies — there almost always are when anyone other than Jean Renoir tries to meld comedy and drama — but this is, on the whole, a smart, raunchy and very funny satire of celebrity and black life in 21st century America. As a cinematic vehicle, it is worthy of Rock’s considerable talents as a writer and performer but it’s also obvious that Rock is a real filmmaker too. The plot charts the relationship between Andre Allen (Rock), an actor who’s trying to branch out from his “early, funny work” and be taken seriously by starring in a drama about a slave rebellion in 18th century Haiti, and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), the New York Times reporter who’s assigned to spend the day interviewing him. The looming tragedy of Allen’s impending nuptials to a shallow reality-T.V. star (Gabrielle Union) is thrown into relief by the very real chemistry exhibited between Allen and Brown. It’s likely that some of the viewers who respond to the sweetness displayed in the romantic scenes, however, might also head for the aisles during a flashback constructed around an elaborate but crude gag involving four-way hotel-room sex between Allen, a couple of hookers and an unscrupulous promoter played by Cedric the Entertainer. Still, those who stick with it until the end might find Top Five‘s heart and brains sneaking up on them. It helps that Rock adopts some sturdy models for his well-structured film: the Woody Allen influence is obvious but it wasn’t until Andre’s revelatory third-act visit to the Comedy Cellar that I realized this is essentially a remake of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. I was also inordinately fond of how what seems like a throwaway joke about Charlie Chaplin being “the KRS-One of comedy” receives an unexpected and hilarious payoff about 30 minutes later when rapper DMX turns up to “sing” Chaplin’s immortal “Smile.” Finally, it must be noted that Rock really knows how to end a movie. Many lesser directors would’ve been tempted to include an extra scene, or at least a few more lines of dialogue, but the abruptness of Rock’s final cut to black flirts with the sublime.

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In the shameless promotion department, I’m happy to report that my indie feature Cool Apocalypse now has a teaser trailer, which I’m embedding via vimeo below. The film will have its first sneak-preview screening this Sunday night at a wine bar in Chicago for cast, crew, backers and invited guests only. A free wine tasting will precede the screening. Any Chicago-area readers of this blog who would like an invitation to the event should contact me at mikeygsmith@gmail.com and I can provide you with more details about the screening. Cheers!

Cool Apocalypse Trailer from Michael Smith on Vimeo.


Odds and Ends: Welcome to New York and Bird People

Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, USA/France, 2014) – Illegal Download / Rating: 8.2

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Welcome to New York, Abel Ferrara’s thinly disguised dramatization of the Dominique Strauss Kahn scandal starring Gerard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, has predictably been a lightning rod for controversy since premiering direct to video-on-demand in France last May. The film begins with a series of debauched sexual encounters (let’s just say that champagne and ice cream are put to creative use) between Depardieu’s “Mr. Devereaux,” an international financial bigwig, and hired prostitutes — before culminating in a recreation of Kahn’s alleged sexual assault of a Guinean hotel maid (for which the IMF chief was exonerated but nonetheless forever sinking his Presidential hopes). If you can make it past the chaos of this opening 30-minute bacchanal, which not only avoids titillation but feels awkward and depressing by design (courtesy of Ken Kelsch’s cool and distanced camerawork), the film then fascinatingly shifts registers for its second and third acts. Next up are lengthy scenes showing Devereaux being arrested, booked and taken from one holding cell to another by real police officers — some of whom were involved in Kahn’s actual booking. This sequence is practically a documentary and contains the only moments in the movie where one is likely to feel sympathy for the monstrous Devereaux (especially when the now-morbidly obese Depardieu is forced to strip naked). The final act sees Devereaux, free on bail, being joined by his wife, Simone (Bisset), in a New York townhouse and engaging in a series of electrifying domestic arguments in which the Gallic thesps are really allowed to let it fly. Many critics have drawn comparisons between Welcome to New York and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street since both films use sexual depravity as a metaphor for the decadence of late capitalism. The differences between the directors’ approaches, however, are probably more instructive: while I find nothing immoral or irresponsible about Scorsese’s making a dark screwball comedy out of a real-life tragedy, I have to confess that Ferrara’s take — an uncompromising “feel bad” venture in the vein of Pasolini’s Salo — is probably more apposite. One measure of its effectiveness? Kahn and his wife are suing the filmmakers.

IFC Films will release Welcome to New York in a censored R-rated version in the U.S. next year. Ferrara’s original version can be illegally downloaded via the usual places.

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, France, 2014) – Video on Demand / Rating: 8.4

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Gary Newman (The Good Wife‘s Josh Charles, superbly understated) is a Silicon Valley executive who travels to France on business and, while bivouacking at the Paris Hilton, experiences a panic attack that will alter his destiny forever. His story is intercut with that of Audrey Camuzet (Anaïs Demoustier, dangerously cute), a young, working-class student and hotel maid whose job both pays the bills and affords her the opportunity to improve her English by conversing with the guests. While the parallel editing between these narrative threads serves to clue viewers in that the characters’ lives will eventually cross, exactly how, when and why this happens is in a manner so eccentric that that no first-time viewer will ever see it coming. Pascale Ferran’s whimsical comedy/drama takes such a bizarre left turn at about the one hour mark, in fact, that even many of the viewers who have admired it up to that point are likely to mentally check out. Those who are searching for something delightfully different, however, may find themselves rewarded by an eccentric character study that ends up being less interested in realism than it might first appear. The history of the cinema is in many ways the history of showing how lonely souls connect; I, for one, am grateful to Ferran for presenting her particular version within the context of a broader allegory about the desire for human transcendence. When viewed in this light, much of the film’s first half makes a different kind of retrospective sense — such as the way the filmmakers casually eavesdrop on passengers’ conversations on a commuter train, and the way a child looks up with amazement — of a kind that the mature, “adult” Newman is no longer capable of — at the awe-inspiring sight of a plane taking flight.

Bird People is currently available for “rent” on various digital platforms including iTunes and Amazon.com.


Odds and Ends: Norte, The End of History and Manakamana

Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 9.7

Norte

Chicago movie buffs should make it a point to see Lav Diaz’s monumental Norte, the End of History, which will have its local premiere this Saturday, September 6, as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s ambitious Filipino Cinema series (and then screen only once more, on Saturday, September 27). This 4-hour-plus transposition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the contemporary Philippines is easily one of the most important film events of the year. Diaz, a profoundly modern filmmaker, reminds us why Dostoevsky’s 19th-century novel will always be sadly relevant — because pretentious and confused young men will always come up with half-baked philosophical theories to justify their supposed moral superiority. Diaz’s real masterstroke, however, is to essentially split Dostoevsky’s protagonist into three separate characters: Fabian (Sid Lucero) is the chief Raskolnikov figure, a law-school dropout who commits the horrific and senseless double murder of a loan shark and her daughter; Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a family man and laborer, is falsely accused of the crime and sentenced to a lengthy prison term; Eliza (Angeli Bayani), Joaquin’s wife, must consequently roam the countryside and look for odds jobs in order to provide for her and Joaquin’s young children. By having Dostoevsky’s themes of crime, punishment and redemption correspond to three characters instead of one, Diaz retains the Russian author’s trademark first-person psychological intensity while also offering a panoramic view of society that more closely resembles that of Count Tolstoy. Please don’t let the extensive running time scare you: like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, another favorite work of art that Norte resembles, not a minute of screen time here is wasted.

The complete schedule for the Filipino Cinema: New Directions/New Auteurs series can be found here.

Manakamana (Stephanie Spray/Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013) – On Demand / Rating: 8.1

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Let’s face it: the vast majority of what pass for feature documentaries these days are merely works of video journalism. In these “talking heads”-studded extravaganzas, which are increasingly clogging up precious space in America’s arthouse theaters, content is everything. The best that can be said about their cinematography and sound design is that they are “functional.” I happen to like some such movies but I also know damn well that I am likely to get the same thing out of watching them on an iPhone that I will get out of watching them on a 40-foot cinema screen. That’s why it brings me great pleasure to say that I recently caught up to Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, a non-fiction film full of remarkable sights and sounds that proves again, if further proof is needed, that Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab is almost single-handedly rescuing the documentary form by producing non-fiction films of real aesthetic value. As in the SEL’s mesmerizing 2012 fishing-boat doc cum horror movie Leviathan, the focus here is more experiential (and experimental) than informational. The premise is that the camera stays inside of a 5×5-foot cable car as it makes 11 journeys, carrying visitors to and from the sacred “Manakamana temple,” through the remote Himalayan mountains in Nepal. Each of the 11 journeys was captured in a single 10-minute take on 16mm film and all of the edits between shots have been cleverly disguised by cover of darkness (a la Hitchcock’s Rope). The result is that viewers get to casually hang out with a wide swath of humanity — cell-phone-wielding teenagers, chatty elderly women, jamming musicians, sacrificial goats and even a couple of American tourists — and are asked to simply observe them against the background of an ever-changing jungle landscape. A fascinating, immersive experience.

Manakamana is now available for rental or purchase on various digital platforms, including iTunes.


Odds and Ends: A Summer’s Tale and Life Itself

A Summer’s Tale (Rohmer, France, 1996) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 7.9

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In much the same way that the Humphrey Bogart-vehicle Dead Reckoning can be seen as the quintessential film noir — by being a virtual checklist of all of the genre’s conventions — in spite of the fact that it’s not very good, so too can A Summer’s Tale be deemed the “ultimate Eric Rohmer movie” in spite of falling far short of the master’s best work. All of the key Rohmer ingredients are here (which might be part of the problem): familiar from La Collectionneuse, Pauline at the Beach and The Green Ray is the beach locale during summertime; from all six of the Moral Tales is the dilemma of a young man (Melvil Poupaud) torn between multiple — and vastly different — women; and from countless other Rohmer films is an academic protagonist (this time a mathematician and musician studying “sea shanties”) sidetracked by l’amour fou. Poupaud, half-way between being the child actor discovered by Raul Ruiz and the mature adult performer in movies by Arnaud Desplechin, Xavier Dolan and others, is appealing, but Amanda Langlet steals the show as his ambiguous love interest/friend Margot. The theme of thwarted desire is as keen and amusing as ever but those familiar with Rohmer’s oeuvre will know that he’s done this kind of thing much better elsewhere. Even within the “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the late film cycle to which it belongs, this isn’t within hailing distance of such masterworks as A Tale of Winter or An Autumn Tale (though it’s infinitely preferable to the dull A Tale of Springtime). Still, diehard Rohmer fans will want to seek out A Summer’s Tale: it never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. until now and this new HD restoration renders Rohmer’s photography of the sunny Dinard locations as appealing as one could hope for.

Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 2014) – On Demand / Rating: 6.9

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

I recently and belatedly caught up, via video on demand, to Life Itself, Steve James’s much-lauded bio-doc/adaptation of Roger Ebert’s much-lauded memoir of the same title. While I found much to admire within it (I have too much respect for both Ebert and James not to), I also was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. Life Itself feels almost like two separate documentaries (one about Ebert’s life, the other about his death) that have been mashed together but that never quite cohere into a completely satisfying whole. The film about Ebert’s death is the better of the two: scenes of his final months, with his loving wife Chaz beside him in the hospital, in rehab and at home, while occasionally painful to watch, are the heart of the movie and really reveal director James’s humane and guiding hand. The poignancy of these scenes, which underscore the theme of “dying with dignity,” are where one feels the deepest connection between filmmaker and subject. The rest of Life Itself — consisting of talking-head interviews, archival clips from old episodes of Siskel and Ebert, an Ebert sound-alike narrating from the great critic’s memoir, etc. — is more anonymous and feels like standard made-for-PBS fodder; as enjoyable as much of that stuff is, it never feels like more than an unnecessary reduction of an already fine book. Life Itself begins with Ebert’s now-famous quote about cinema being an empathy-generating machine. While the two hours that follow generate more than their fair share of empathy, and are therefore well worth seeing, prospective viewers also shouldn’t be expecting another Hoop Dreams.


Odds and Ends: Elaine May

anewleaf Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf (1970)

Is Elaine May America’s most underrated living filmmaker? Even though I first saw — and loved — her trenchant critique-of-masculinity/long-dark-night-of-the-soul gangster epic Mikey and Nicky back in the 1990s, I never bothered to check out the rest of her four-film oeuvre until recently. This was no doubt in part due to the disastrous critical reception of her 1987 buddy-comedy Ishtar — her most recent, and presumably final, movie as a director — but also because I had subconsciously and wrongly assigned partial authorship of Mikey and Nicky to lead actor John Cassavetes. Surely the godfather of independent American cinema and his old pal Peter Falk had improvised all of their dialogue, hadn’t they? (They hadn’t.) I finally got around to watching May’s directorial debut A New Leaf while looking for a female-directed film to illustrate the “screwball comedy” in a class (thanks, Paul Mollica!) and was blown away by what I saw: not only is it uproariously funny, it’s also exceedingly dark, and it updates screwball conventions for the Seventies in a manner similar to what Altman did to film noir with The Long Goodbye. Watching the terrific Walter Matthau, who can charitably be described as “funny looking,” doing a Cary Grant impersonation is as delightfully perverse as seeing nebbishy Elliot Gould playing the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe. I was also fascinated to find that May’s directorial follow-up, the Neil Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid essentially reverses the narrative trajectory of her debut: A New Leaf is about a wealthy bachelor, Henry Graham (Matthau), who agrees to marry a loopy heiress, Henrietta Lowell (May), in order to maintain his fortune, despite his having no interest in women. Although Henry initially plots Henrietta’s murder, he eventually learns to care for her and resigns himself to his fate as her husband. The Heartbreak Kid, by contrast, is about Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), a young Jewish newlywed, who extricates himself from a marriage in order to obtain the blonde shiksa of his dreams (Cybil Shepard). After getting remarried, a chilling finale suggests that this sociopathic man is even more unsatisfied than before.

ishtar Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar (1987)

What impresses me the most about Elaine May’s first three features is how deceptively “entertaining” they are, using the conventions of various genres (screwball comedy, romantic comedy and gangster movie, respectively) in order to genuinely challenge viewer expectations in regards to character identification and narrative resolution. Just watch, for instance, The Heartbreak Kid and The Graduate (directed by May’s old comedy-act partner Mike Nichols) side-by-side: May’s film is a disturbing comedy that daringly asks us to identify with a truly selfish and terrible person while Nichols flatters us by having us side with the Dustin Hoffman character in opposition to a world of hopelessly square adults. Is it any wonder that The Graduate, which shrewdly marries its emulation of French New Wave aesthetics and vague anti-authoritarianism to a careful flattering of viewer prejudices, is the better known and more beloved of the two works? If Ishtar isn’t quite on the level of May’s first three movies, it’s still one of the best Hollywood comedies of recent decades — and one that deserved a far better reception than it got. Transplanting the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road-movie formula to a fictional Middle-Eastern country roiled by real political unrest and international intrigue was a bold move on May’s part, and her direction of Hoffman and Warren Beatty is brilliant. Those actors have never been better — and they’ve certainly never been funnier. And yet the film’s financial failure ignominiously brought down the curtain on Elaine May’s directing career (even while she’s continued to find success as a writer and actress for films by Nichols, Woody Allen and others). Right now, my fondest cinephile wish is for the script that May has been developing with her husband, the 90-year-old director Stanley Donen (yes, he of Singin’ in the Rain fame), to start production soon. The list of the greatest movies never made has grown long enough.

You can check out the trailer for The Heartbreak Kid (1972) via YouTube below:


Odds and Ends: A Touch of Sin

touchofsin Zhao Tao with blade and topknot ponytail.

I recently revisited my favorite film of 2013, Jia Zhang-Ke’s A Touch of Sin, thanks to Kino/Lorber’s stellar new Blu-ray, an occasion that caused me to realize how much my initial long review barely scratched the surface of this great work of art. Upon rewatching Jia’s bold, funny, shocking, beautiful and torn-from-the-headlines anthology (it was inspired by items that first appeared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter and apparently a widespread source of important but often “unofficial” news for many Chinese citizens), what stands out to me the most now are the way each of the film’s four stories are linked in ways both obvious and subtle. So here are some additional thoughts on some of the fascinating correspondences between the different segments of A Touch of Sin: the first and the second stories are linked by gun violence, and it is further implied that the protagonists of each story may not have committed murder if they had not readily had firearms at their disposal. The third and the fourth stories are linked by the fact that both protagonists have recently been romantically jilted, and thus they share a possible indirect psychological motive for their aberrant behavior. The first and the third stories are also linked by a potential motive — revenge (the protagonists, who inflict violence on others, do so only after violence has been inflicted on them). And the second and fourth stories deal with rootless characters whose violence may be seen as resulting from profound feelings of dislocation. Finally, all four stories prominently feature a symbolic use of animals and animal imagery: from the horse being flogged in the first story, to the Chicago Bulls logo on a killer’s stocking cap in the second, to myriad snake imagery in the third (including an excerpt from Tsui Hark’s Green Snake), to fish seen imprisoned in an aquarium in the fourth. In each instance, the lives of the protagonists seem to correspond to these “spirit animals.”

touchofsin2 Jiang Wu with shotgun and tiger-emblazoned towel.

Even more fascinating are the varying degrees to which Jia has purposefully stylized the climactic “acts of violence” in each of the four segments, which, taken together, turn the whole project into a meditation on both real-world violence and its representation in the movies. (How many other films in recent decades, instead of merely being violent, actually make violence their subject and have something interesting to say about it? A History of Violence? Unforgiven? Anything else?) The most stylized action in A Touch of Sin occurs in the third story where Yu Xiao (Zhao Tao), a receptionist at a massage parlor, slices a man to ribbons after he harasses her by making unwanted sexual advances and repeatedly hitting her over the head with a wad of cash. The fact that Yu reveals an unexpected and almost-superhuman dexterity with a knife, not to mention that she sports a topknot ponytail like a wuxia heroine, places this exhilarating sequence squarely in the realm of myth (not unlike the climax of the aforementioned Unforgiven). The protagonist of the first story, Dahai (Jiang Wu) is almost as sympathetic as Yu as he avenges himself against the crimes of corrupt politicians and local business leaders in his village. The violence caused by Dahai’s shotgun blasts is, however, depicted in a more realistic and horrifying fashion than Yu’s blade work. The saddest moment in the film is the self-inflicted violence of the fourth story (which sees Jia utilizing CGI in a way that allows him to recreate the suicide in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero but in more excruciating detail). The scariest violence, by far, occurs in the second story: Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) is a drifter on a motorcycle who, it is implied, gets some kind of sexual thrill from discharging a gun and plots an elaborate robbery as a mere pretext for the purpose of being able to shoot two people. Such a mindset is, of course, unfathomable, which is exactly why stories of violence in the media leave so many of us frustrated. Jia may not provide answers but we should all be grateful that he has at least been able to dramatize our questions about such matters as intelligently as he has in A Touch of Sin. The film even ends with a rhetorical (sung) question: “Do you understand your sin?”

Kino/Lorber’s stellar Blu-ray of A Touch of Sin can be purchased on amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Touch-Sin-Blu-ray-Tian-Ding/dp/B00H91LWBY

You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin via YouTube below:


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